Musing on the Noisy Web… and the upcoming Quiet Web?

Peaceful Interface Design
Search Engine OptimisationUser Experience

While contemplating the challenges of finding time to blog, tweet, and update our customers on the web, I began to explore the concept of the “quiet web,” coining the phrase. The internet is often a cacophony of information, with search engines playing a significant role. Search engines rely on words to understand the content of websites. Unless you can afford to drive all your web traffic through Adwords, experts like myself often advise businesses to improve their search engine rankings by frequently writing about different aspects of their business.

The consequence of this is that when we search, especially for items we wish to purchase, it often feels like we are navigating a bustling Berber market in Marrakech rather than strolling through peaceful streets lined with small shops. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but in the real world, there are times when we desire both experiences, and what we are looking for influences our needs. The current search engines don’t seem to offer both experiences simultaneously.

Since it first entered our lives, Google’s algorithm has become vastly more complex. Initially, websites were assessed by examining metadata – information about a web page that visitors can’t see without delving into the backend. This led site owners to stuff their metadata with popular search terms of the day, from Britney Spears to the Hugh Grant affair, in an attempt to lure unwitting web users to their websites for entirely unrelated reasons.

Naturally, search engines evolved to combat this behavior, and algorithms shifted towards evaluating websites based on the visible words and their semantic significance to users. Elements like titles, bold text, or italics were considered more important, much like they are to human visitors. However, this opened the door to a new kind of abuse, with websites filled with unintelligible content aimed solely at manipulating search engines. The evolution since then has been for search engines to assess the linguistic value of your content, not necessarily by understanding the language itself (although patterns of abuse are identified this way) but by understanding how visitors interact with your content.

The time visitors spend on your blog posts, the search terms that led them to your site, and whether they explored other pages on your site all influence where your website ranks in Google’s search results. Google’s algorithm takes into account factors like age, gender, past web behavior, location, and more to determine where your business should rank compared to others. It is possible to gain visibility as a new business with limited content, but if reaching a broader audience through search engine results is critical to your business’s success, writing content remains a primary means of generating traffic. This has contributed to the noisy nature of the web.

A Gradual Shift Towards the Quiet Web?

It appears that change is on the horizon, and it’s starting to gain momentum. In my experience conducting user testing sessions, users often express concerns about the noisiness and clutter of platforms like Facebook. The market seems to be responding to these concerns, with platforms like Ello adopting slogans like “Simple, Beautiful, and Ad-free.” While it may be challenging for Ello to compete directly with Facebook in the short term, if its growth continues, businesses may learn valuable lessons about building a following by embracing a quieter approach.

Google itself is testing a model where users can pay to remove Google Ads from partner sites. This might be a precursor to a future where search engines themselves offer a quieter browsing experience. Many of Google’s recent developments indicate a growing understanding of real-world business dynamics. For instance, Google prioritizes local search results for various queries. If you run a local business that relies on local customers or operate in a tourist destination with a strong presence on review platforms like TripAdvisor, you may not need to be as loud. Google’s Street View, which provides a virtual tour of businesses, could also be part of this shift. As Google’s algorithms become more sophisticated, they may help accentuate the real-world aspects of businesses, allowing users to make judgments based on shop size, window displays, signage, and branding, just as they would on the high street.

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